Former Walker Cup players Sam Hutsby and Andy Sullivan built on their fine starts at the Qualifying School Final Stage, with just one shot separating the two Englishmen at the midway stage of the six-round marathon.
On another sunny day at PGA Catalunya Resort in Girona, northern Spain, Hutsby shot a round of 68 on the Tour Course to move to 15 under par, with Sullivan signing for a 67 to close the gap to a single stroke.
Hutsby opened with a birdie on the tenth hole, before a bogey at the 13th temporarily halted his momentum. But he rallied with a birdie at the 18th hole, and a further gain after the turn saw the 23 year old maintain his place at the head of affairs.
Were it not for a cold putter Hutsby’s advantage would have been greater, but he is still on course to complete a second successful visit to the Qualifying School, having finished runner-up behind his compatriot Simon Khan in 2009.
He said: “I only missed two greens but I just couldn’t buy a putt. So I’m a little disappointed, because I felt I played well enough to break away a bit. But I’m still leading, so I would have taken that at the start of the day. My target is six rounds in the 60s, so that goal is still on. There are still three rounds to go, but I’m in a nice position.
“I didn’t force it too much today, I just hit the greens without hitting it very close. It was always going to be a fairly tidy round because I’m playing well, but I could have been three or four shots better.
“It’s hard, because you get to holes that I birdied in the first round [when he shot 60], and if you par them you feel you’re not playing as well. So two under wasn’t really the score I was looking for but it was just one of those days on the greens, and sometimes you just have to accept it.
“It’s strange that we’re only half way. Most of us played two or three practice rounds, so it already feels like a long week but there are three rounds to go. I feel fresh though, and I’ve been sleeping well. I’ve been playing nicely, so I’m looking forward to the next three days.”
Sullivan, who played alongside Tom Lewis in Great Britain and Ireland’s triumphant 2011 Walker Cup team, mixed six birdies with three bogeys to move to 14 under par and within sight of a European Tour card just three months after joining the professional ranks.
The 25 year old, who boasted a 100 per cent record in the Foursomes at Royal Aberdeen Golf Club, is determined to win his private duel with Hutsby.
He said: “I think there is a nice little battle going on between myself and Sam. I don’t think we’d like to comment on it too much, but there’s definitely a bit of to and fro so it’s really good. We’ve played a couple of times together and been in squads together, so we know each other well enough.
“I’ve put myself in a good position now, so I’m definitely thinking about winning it. It would mean a lot to me and would probably the biggest achievement of my life, so I just have to go out there and keep doing what I’m doing.
“I’ve been a professional for three months, and I love it. I’ve probably learned more in three months than I did in my whole amateur career, so it’s been fantastic. This has definitely been my most enjoyable week as a pro, scoring wise. I’ve been playing well prior to this but just haven’t seemed to put the numbers together, so it’s nice to be able to do that finally.”
The English duo will be joined in the final group by Peter Gustafsson, who made a fine start to his round of 66 with an eagle at the tenth hole.
The Swede won the Qualifying School in 2004 but is yet to finish inside the top 30 in two previous visits to PGA Catalunya Resort, so is hoping to rectify that record this week.
He said: “It’s only half way, so there’s still a long way to go. The guys coming straight here from the Second Stage must feel like they’ve been playing for ages! I’m feeling good and I’ve been working a lot with my fitness coach in Marbella, so everything feels good.
“My game is very solid so far, so the target is just to keep it going. You don’t want to go overboard on how well you’re playing at this stage, because it can come back and bite you over the next three rounds. But I’m very happy with where I am at the moment.”
A sublime round of 62 set Thomas Norret on course to reclaim the European Tour card he earned at the Qualifying School Final Stage 12 months ago.
The Dane, who took the 17th card last year, covered the Tour Course in just 62 strokes, firing eight birdies in an immaculate display.
Norret reached the turn in just 29 thanks chiefly to a five birdie burst from the fourth hole, before making three more gains to finish on 12 under par.
With the top 30 and ties securing a place in The 2012 Race to Dubai, Norret is in position to secure a swift return to The European Tour, having relinquished his playing privileges after finishing in 155th place in the Money List this year.
Norret said: “It was an awesome day. I got off to a nice start, and just kept calm all day. I made five birdies in a row on the front nine, and that really got me going. We had a slow spell in the middle and got held up, but then I got back into it and played well at the end.
“It’s nice to be up there after a round like today. I felt confident coming here. I had a bad first half of the season, but over the last four or five months my game has been pretty good. I played well last week at Second Stage, and in South Africa before that at the Alfred Dunhill Championship. So I was confident coming to Final Stage, and it’s nice that it has paid off today.”
Three-time European Tour champion Nick Dougherty, meanwhile, endured a difficult day as a round of 75 left him on four over par and facing an uphill task to make Thursday’s cut.
He said: “I played really well on the front nine, and then I had a tough break. I’ve got a little bit of an ailment at the moment with my hip, where it clicks and goes, and when it does I’m lucky if I make contact with the ball. It happened on the first tee, which was my tenth hole, and made a bogey then I never really made a shot after that.
“But I hold out hope that I can get it back to how it used to be, and how it used to feel. There are some times when I do play good golf, and it feels great. For nine holes today I played phenomenal, I should have been nine under but still nothing went my way. I had two three putts to go one under through nine, and I missed two putts from inside eight feet for birdie. I should never have shot that score today, but that’s just the way it’s going for me at the moment.”